Review of the Day: The Sound of Colors
I've decided to only review the newest books on this blog. Until now I've delayed posting certain reviews simply because they hand't appeared on Amazon.com yet and I like to link the two together. Now, however, it has come to my attention that people might be interested in my reviews without necessarily needing to purchase them immediately. With that in mind, everything here (with a couple exceptions here and there) will be NEW NEW NEW!
Okay, I need you to make two lists on two separate sheets of paper. On one sheet I want you to write down all the picture books you can think of that deal with kids who are going to be or already are blind. Got that? Okay, now on the other sheet I want you to write down all the picture books you can think of that were originally written in Chinese and have been translated into English. All right, pencils down, and let's see what you have. Now if you're like me you probably had a devil of a time coming up with any titles at all. I'm a children's librarian and work with picture books every day. Just the same, I found myself stumbling over whether or not I could think of any children's books, picture and otherwise, that spoke about blindness. Obviously there are some out there, but I've just never been privy to them. As for Chinese translations, American publishers are notoriously frightened of introducing books from other cultures into the American market. Credit Little, Brown and Company then with what may well be one of the finest transplantations of Chinese children's literature in years. Originally this book came to my attention because my fellow children's literature bloggers were cooing so loudly over it. Part over-the-top dreamscape, part personal journey, the book is one of those remarkable stories offering up personal reflections without a drop of self-pity.
Our heroine is a girl in a red backpack a pair of blue-tinted sunglasses. The first sentences in the book read, "A year ago I began to notice that my sight was slipping away. I sat at home alone and felt the darkness settle around me. But today I walked outside into the thin gray rain and made my way to the subway. I have a journey to go on. There are some things I need to find". It starts out slowly. The gray colorless subway doesn't offer much for the imagination, but our heroine starts to think and dream. She wonders what the world will be like when she reaches a different stop. Her mind begins to expand upon the places the train might take her and the occupants of those trains. When she exits stations she sometimes thinks, "What if I stepped out into an ocean?", and sometimes, "I wonder what would happen if I stepped off the last stair and found nothing beneath my foot". In this way she flies downward, soars upwards, and the stations become more and more colorful and powerful. Trains can be filled with passengers wearing sunglasses identical to the girl's or filled with Tin Woodsmen, for no particular reason. The girl glides on the back of a swan or sits in a library windowseat as an orange sunset suffuses the room. At last she returns home to find the light she lost that still glows, "in my heart". The final image is of the girl entering a home that has vibrant stained glass walls of enormous colors, images, and comforts.
By and large, you don't normally come across picture books that are 80 pages long. There's a level of sophistication to, "The Sound of Colors", however, that allows for this unusual length. It isn't as if you're going through page after page of intensive text, after all. Sometimes pages don't have any words at all. Other time they think rather mature thoughts with rather simple words. Kids reading this book will be enthralled by the illustrations, and may return to them time and again just to see how they connect and change.
I don't think a person would have the slightest idea that this book had been originally published in China if you didn't tell them right off the bat. There's no indication that the subway isn't in New York or D.C., except possibly the fact that there isn't much diversity amongst the passengers. The illustrations in this puppy are the real lure. The plot's nice and all, of course. And the translation isn't too shabby either. But where Liao outdoes himself is in the massive dreamlike narratives that confuse and fill the book to the brim. At one point our heroine travels on a small train onto which has been painted with figures from Matisse paintings. Above her head is the buried skeleton of a dinosaur held up by wooden beams. Tiny details elaborate on her thoughts but never draw too much attention. Describing her blindness the girl says, "The last thing I lost was the light, as if somebody played a joke on me, turned off the switch". Below you see a train filled with dark figures. In front of the train a younger version of the girl runs playfully through a yellow field after two bunnies. From her size you know you're looking at the past, or maybe a memory. Add onto all of this the fact that with every colorful scene the girl's clothing changes color, and you have a book that isn't afraid to play with its readers' perceptions.
I don't know why, but the book that "The Sound of Colors" reminded me of the most was "The Maze" by Christopher Manson. In both cases the reader enters into surreal fabulous worlds where anything can happen just on the next page. There's a little feel of Peter Sis as well. At once point the girl finds her way out of a hedge maze by simply leaping through it and every single leaf on that hedge has been carefully drawn individually with a meticulous hand. As for the professional uses of this book, "The Sound of Colors" lends itself to creative possibilities. You could perhaps use this title to show kids the power of imagination or explain what it's like to loose one of your senses. You could pair it with Chris Van Allsburg's, "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" and have your kids create stories to accompany each elaborate scene the girl walks through. Or you could just read it to your kids and enjoy it that way. It's a lovely book with surreal pictures and realistic thoughts. A beautiful addition to any personal library.